After covering the final push against Hitler with the 83rd Infantry from Normandy to Berlin, Life magazine photographer Dave Scherman and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller gave a German who spoke a little English a carton of cigarettes to show them around the ruins of Munich. Eventually he led them to Hitler's house. In the bathroom there was a bathtub. Lee filled it up with water. She shed her clothes and got in. A warm bath is a soldier's luxury and they certainly earned it, even though they were civilians. They placed a photo of Hitler at one end, a small statue of Eva Braun naked at the other, and Scherman took her picture.
As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II neared, a few magazines and newspapers ran the picture with a story and the inevitable headline: "Lee Miller: the woman in Hitler’s bathtub."
But she was so much more than that, and worse of all, the bath never cleansed her. The photographers came Munich from Dachau. The dirt on the rug was from that concentration camp. Just before she died, Lee Miller told her biographer Carolyn Burke: “I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils.”
And that was not the worse thing that happened to Lee Miller.
This is what she gave the world, as described by European street photographer Lilly Schwartz: "The first time I was confronted with Lee Miller’s work was probably an unconscious encounter with pictures of the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. I grew up in Germany and no German education is complete without a visit to a concentration camp. This means that I must have been confronted with her gruesome concentration camp pictures very early on without even knowing that it was Lee Miller who took these photographs. When I saw the pictures of the liberation for the very first time I remember growing very cold, shivering almost, as I began to understand that these piles of things were actually human beings discarded like garbage. I couldn't quite understand how anyone could be capable of treating human beings like that and the thought will probably remain horrifying to me until my last day on Earth. Lee Miller didn't only see this in black and white though, she lived it in color, she even smelled it, and instead of looking away, unable to face the horror like many of the German women who were forced to visit the camp after the liberation, she even took pictures of the experience. She photographed the smashed faces of the former guards of the camps, the liberated prisoners, the corpses, all with a horror so palpable that one can’t look at these pictures for very long."
This is how Lee Miller got to Dachau. Lee Miller was born on April 23, 1907, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the daughter of Theodore and Florence Miller. He was an engineer, inventor and businessman, and amateur photographer. He introduced Lee and her brothers to photography at an early age. He would, as she matured, take nude pictures of her.
“It’s difficult to understand,” her son and only child Antony Penrose told the London Telegraph. “His photos of her are quite creepy and definitely transgress the child-parent boundaries. I think there was something very odd about Theodore.”
Grandpa was more than a little odd in the sexualization of his daughter. Anthony Penrose discovered, after researching his mother's life extensively, that she had contracted gonorrhea at age 7; Penrose believes from her father gave it to her. There are far worse things than being your father's favorite.
But that would not be the worst thing that happened to Lee Miller. She survived child sexual abuse and venereal disease -- and a near brush with an automobile later would be her life-changing event.
When she was 19, Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue, stopped her from walking in front of a car on a Manhattan street. She was a beautiful blond. Not only did he save her life but he would launch her modeling career -- and also help her get to Dachau in 1945, as she covered the war for Vogue's British edition. But no one knew that then. Landing the cover of Vogue on March 15, 1927, led quickly to her rising to the top tier of models in New York.
Lee Miller became bored, however, and decided to learn more about photography. She had been an art student, after all, when Condé Nast discovered her. She followed Man Ray, a surrealist artist and a major photographer at the time, to a cafe one day, and asked him if she would take her as a student. Man Ray told her he didn't take students and besides, he was leaving for Paris the next day. She went with him and began a three year affair in which she met other surrealist artists including Picasso, for whom she posed, however, her affair with Man Ray ended tempestuously.
"She returned to New York in 1932, and again set up her own studio which ran for 2 years and was highly successful. It closed when she married a wealthy Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live with him in Cairo, Egypt. She became fascinated by long range desert travel and photographed desert villages and ruins," her son wrote.
Author Toni Bentley wrote, "At a costume party in Paris she met Roland Penrose, a wealthy British painter and writer who was an eager member of the Surrealist circle. After waking in his bed two mornings later, she embarked on a passionate affair with Penrose, and a wild summer of bohemian partner-swapping and exhibitionism that included a visit to Picasso at Mougins. There Lee was painted by Picasso six times and gladly loaned to him by Penrose for a night or two.”
They ran off together, touring Romania and other exotic places. However, the Telegraph reported that she was not yet divorced but she was living with Penrose when Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War II began. Suddenly, the pacifist Penrose was involved in the war effort, teaching British soldiers the art of camouflage, using his beautiful wife as a model for the soldiers; she was naked but covered in camouflage in just the right places. Lee Miller turned to photojournalism, documenting the London Blitz. When the American troops began staging their invasion in Britain in preparation for D-Day, she battled sexism to become a war photographer. The world is better for her willingness to fight for this right.
“It is almost impossible today to conceive how difficult it was for a woman correspondent to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, in other words, to the front, where the action was,” Life photographer Dave Scherman wrote
After D-Day, she and a group of women journalists received permission to fly and stay in France but well behind the lines. In her journal she wrote of her flight there: “As we flew into sight of France I swallowed hard on what were trying to be tears, and remembered a movie actress kissing a handful of earth. My self-conscious analysis was forgotten in greedily studying the soft, gray-skied panorama of nearly a thousand square miles of France — of freed France. Cherbourg was a misty bend far to the right, and ahead three planes were returning from dropping the bombs which made towering columns of smoke. That was the front.”
Much has been written about World War II. Few paragraphs contain both the horror of the war our soldiers suffered and the beauty of the liberation they delivered.
She was very human as she toured the American military hospitals: “I stiffened every time I saw a German, and resented my heart softening involuntarily toward German wounded.”
Eventually, she was assigned to the 329th Infantry of the 83rd Infantry Division -- the Thunderbolt Division -- becoming their mascot. Unbeknown to her at the time, she captured the first use of napalm by Americans -- a good 20 years before Vietnam. Military censors refused to release those photographs.
“Dave Scherman turned up in Saint-Malo on August 17, 1944. After covering the battle from nearby, he wanted to see the results. Some of the most unexpected were the changes in Lee. She looked like 'an unmade, unwashed bed' in her olive drabs and boots, he recalled. He photographed her seated on rubble while displaying her good profile, and beside a steel pillbox, while two soldiers from the 83rd peer at their tired, squinting mascot. Dave and Lee made plans to pool their shots, sending some of hers to John Morris and his shots of her to Audrey Withers,” biographer Carolyn Burke wrote.
However, being “an unmade, unwashed bed” in her olive drabs and boots likely was par for the course for all the war photographers and certainly the soldiers. The difference was she was the only woman photographer or soldier. She endured what they endured. And that is what equality is all about. Her photos of Dachau are riveting. Is it because she was a woman and gave some sort of special feminine insight? Not likely. A more reasonable explanation is her extensive exposure to surrealism from such artists as Man Ray and Picasso helped prepare her for the horrific surprise at the end of World War II: The acknowledgement of the German concentration camps and the German gas chambers.
The price she paid came afterward. She gave birth to Antony William Roland Penrose on September 9, 1947, but she could never enjoy him. A nanny, Patsy Murray, raised him. Penrose as an adult recalled, "She was a hopeless mum. She had no natural maternal instincts."
But it was only after her death from cancer in 1977, at age 70, that Penrose discovered why she was that way. She suffered post-traumatic depression and medicated herself with alcohol. Her son discovered all this when he came up her 60,000 photographs and her journals from that war.
“Her looks had deserted her once she got on the bottle and she was having trouble accepting Roland’s affairs,” recalled her son. “They had both always had lots of affairs, the place was very free sexually, but Lee got more and more angry watching women hurling themselves at Roland, and she drank more and argued a lot.”
A reporter for the Telegraph asked him if he forgave her abuse of him as a child.
"Oh God, yes,” he replied. “I just really regret we were so hostile, so embattled for so long.”
He offered an interesting observation, “When she was young, there were a series of boys she fell in love with who died. I think she thought, 'I’m not going to let myself love this baby because if I do, something dreadful will happen to him’.”
She had other children she never knew who followed her footsteps. Photographer Lilly Schwartz saw the Dachau photos an was inspired to become a photographer. Thanks to Lee Miller, Lilly Schwartz has more freedom to live up to her potential.